We came back from the tsunami and quake stricken region of Ishinomaki city, Miyagi prefecture last week. It’s been roughly two months since the M9.0 earthquake, and if any of you were think that it’s too late to go up there to lend a hand, you were wrong. Ishinomaki needs plenty of hands right now, and will continue to need them for years to come, as work continues to clean the wounds before healing can even begin. The situation gets even more daunting knowing that this is not the only city affected by the disaster, and that up and down the coast cities and towns have been subjected to a similar amount of damage, which even for one city is on a truly unimaginable scale.
About 160,000 live in Ishinomaki city. About 7% of these people are homeless. This doesn’t sound like much but that’s over 10,000 people in refugee centers with virtually no possessions and no way of acquiring them except through the efforts of the government, army and aid organizations. How many people can fit into a school gym while still maintaining a modicum of personal space? Think about how many gyms that equates to. Add to this the numbers of people whose houses are still standing but they live on the second or third floor of their homes because their lower floors have been wrecked by the tsunami. With two months passed, mildew and mould from the water damage have set in with a vengeance, leading to a potentially serious public health crisis, especially with the warmer seasons on the way. There are also thousands upon thousands of tons of wreckage to be taken away and disposed of, and just as much toxic sludge from the bottom of the ocean coats the interiors of buildings and is breathed in as fine dust when left to dry on the roads. This sludge is a mix of mud, petrochemicals, traces of heavy metals, and rotten biomatter and is dangerous, heavy and difficult to remove, especially from the inside of buildings where heavy machinery can’t be used. There is still a lot of work to be done before people can start to be even vaguely satisfied with themselves, and there are fears that as time progresses the number of people willing to help will evaporate.
I hope that doesn’t happen.
The NGO that we chose to lend our services to was Peaceboat. They are on the whole well organized, and in Golden Week they managed to send about 360 volunteers up to Ishinomaki to bring the total of Peaceboat volunteers up there to around 600 people. In order to avoid overlapping with other NGOs present in the city, Peaceboat restricts its activities to several categories – of these, the main ones are providing hot food for refugees, and providing the muscle and willing pairs of hands to do the jobs that can only be done with a lot of sweat and hard work. Shoveling sludge out of homes and stores, removing water-logged property from damaged homes, cleaning ditches, piling and hauling rubbish – these are all things that you might have to do as a volunteer. Not glamorous work, but necessary.
Everything that you’ll need for the week in Ishinomaki you’ll have to bring yourself. This includes enough water and food to last a week, not to mention a tent and all of the other things that go with camping for a week. As the situation gradually improves there may be less of a need for your own food and water but that isn’t the case yet. Add breathing filters, goggles and steel-lined boots and this makes a rather heavy pack just to go up for a week. You need to be self-sufficient as a volunteer – you can’t rely on resources that might be used by the people who need them.
A walk around the town reveals what we already know, except with stark realism. Shuttered shops and wrecked cars. We were working in the area designated the 半壊地域, hankai-chiiki or ‘half-destroyed areas’, which meant that the tsunami had only reached the height of around three meters. We didn’t get to see the 全壊地域 (zenkai-chiiki, completely-destroyed area) until much later in the trip but I’ll tell you right now that it was a terrible sight.
The photo below shows a provisional ‘onsen’ set up near a temple for the residents of Ishinomaki who don’t have water or gas. The ladies are allowed to use it from 2-4pm, the guys from 4-6pm. Little ‘aid stations’ like this are popping up all over the place, which is an encouraging sight.
On one of the days we were designated to clean the sludge out of a pub/hostess bar called ‘Nice’. You can see where the water left its line near the top of the door and in the corridor outside. In other words, the place was almost completely submerged. The photos below were shot only after we had managed to clear a layer of ankle-deep sludge from the interior.
Removing the mud is dangerous work. Contact with the skin usually results in irritation, and getting it in the eyes is considered very dangerous. It has the consistency of tar and smells of petrol and rotten fish in turns. Breathing the fumes without a mask for too long sets the lungs burning. Every volunteer on the site wears goggles, masks, oil-resistant gloves and boots, and water-proof spray jackets with the wrists taped. Quite an unwieldy outfit, especially as the goggles tended to fog up, but there wasn’t any way around it.
Above: The kitchen area where a large amount of mud still remained. When the tsunami invaded this shop it swept things and turned the property interiors inside-out, so the noxious mud was filled with all sorts of things from broken bottles, items of clothing, squares of carpet, napkins, karaoke books, and so on. This made it quite difficult to dispose of the mud as shovels would often shatter bottles hidden underneath the surface, making it hazardous to shovel into the canvas bags used for disposal.
Below: A somewhat humorous moment during cleaning when my of my team members unearth what was clearly a sludge-covered dildo from the mess. The detritus was not just humorous – from out of the sludge came all sorts of reminders from the life that people used to have here.
Above and below: Team member Nadine isn’t making a cocktail, she’s emptying dirty and cracked bottles for disposal. The tainted whisky and sake gets poured into a storm-water drain and the bottles are carefully taken (hopefully) for recycling.
Below: A high pressure jet is used to clean off after a day’s work. Without this one essential piece of especially useful equipment we’d have a hard time keeping our living area sanitary when we got back to the campsite. If you can spare the time off and speak a little Japanese contact Peace Boat’s office at (03) 3363-8047 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. http://peaceboat.org/relief/